Public Release: 

In Search Of Bad Weather: Scientists Study Lake-Effect Winter Storms

National Science Foundation

Scientists from some 14 institutions are braving the elements on the icy Great Lakes in an intensive field program underway this winter. Researchers on this Lake-Induced Convection Experiment, or Lake-ICE, are trying to better understand midwest meteorology and lake-effect winter storms. Lake-ICE is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"The Great Lakes appear to have a significant impact on the weather over much of the eastern United States and Canada," explains Steve Nelson, director of NSF's mesoscale dynamic meteorology program. Cities on the south and east sides of the Great Lakes, such as Cleveland and Buffalo, owe much of their snow accumulation each winter to lake-effect storms.

"Anyone who's around the Great Lakes knows about lake-effect snowstorms, and how disruptive they can be. Results from Lake-ICE will likely translate into better forecasts of timing, location and intensity of lake-effect snow," says Nelson.

Using aircraft and other research equipment, scientists from the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois and other universities will determine how the Great Lakes affect arctic air masses in winter and how heat and moisture from the lakes circulate on several scales. For these researchers, bad weather is great news -- then they can get out in the field and study their subject.

Working through sleet, snow and icy fog, Lake-ICE researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the Great Lakes' influence on weather both nearby and far away and, more generally, of how the atmosphere reacts to exchanges of heat and moisture with large bodies of water. Project scientists are gathering information on different kinds of lake-effect storms, called "storm flavors."

One flavor of storm, for example, lines up in a single band of clouds and dumps snow in one area, like the Indiana towns located along the bend in Lake Michigan. Another storm flavor forms into parallel rows of clouds, showering some cities with snow and sleet but leaving others untouched. By better understanding the processes that lead to various storm flavors, forecasting will improve not only in the midwest, but in the east as well. "What happens in the Great Lakes appears to impact storm development as far away as the eastern seaboard," says Nelson.

Although results won't be known immediately, if all goes well, Lake-ICE may soon be making a difference by better predicting next winter's storms for those who live in the Great Lakes snowbelt, and along the entire east coast.


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